Help me become more vegetarian without losing muscle
March 10, 2014 1:37 PM   Subscribe

I am thinking of scaling back my factory farm meat intake and eating only the happy cows who are given hugs and sunshine every day. Complicating factor is I like a LOT of protein to support my lifting, and I'd never be able to afford as much $7+/lbs meat as I need to support that intake. I would like to hear the experiences of weight-lifting semi-omnivores on how they made this work for them. Bonus question: if I'm cutting out factory farmed meat, should I cut out eggs, fish, and whey protein too, or are the conditions that produce those a little less horrible?

This is an incredibly huge step as ever since coming back to meat in my early 20s I have been a voracious meat eater. But having done more reading about factory farms and viewing of videos I am tremendously uncomfortable with continuing to support an industry that puts animals in those conditions (and with the waste they produce). I am less uncomfortable with the grass-fed type of meat where the animals are treated more humanely, or wild-caught meat from hunting, but I also don't have the funds to eat these regularly.

However, I still want to maintain a high animal protein intake (like, 150g+/day). I don't know how to do this except by upping my intake of whey protein, dairy products, and eggs (and fish, but still struggling with the commercial fisheries issue). But there's no point in doing that if those are all produced terribly, right? So are the conditions that get those items slightly less terrible than factory farms? People who scaled back meat intake for factory-farm issues, how did you sort through what you did and did not eat? Do you have tips for getting cheaper "ethical" meat?

ALSO--has anyone who's scaled back their meat intake done so while maintaining a very rigorous lifting schedule (at least 3x/week) with an eye towards competing in whichever lifting sport you're devoting yourself to? How did you make it work?

(Please do not argue in favor of plant or soy-based protein options. Those were my main protein choices when I was a young vegetarian and I found animal-based proteins to be a lot more effective.)
posted by schroedinger to Food & Drink (32 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Have you read much on Mac Danzig? He is a professional MMA fighter who is vegan. Perhaps some of his experiences can help you achieve what you are looking for.

I understand you want to continue with animal-based proteins, and that is fine. I thought this might give you some good ideas.
posted by jillithd at 1:46 PM on March 10, 2014

We only eat organic/free range and I spend about $80-100 per week for all our meat for a family of 3, and we eat meat at practically every meal.

Do you have a butcher shop near you? The one near me sells local free-range meat at less than $7/lb. $3.50/lb whole chicken, $5/lb bacon/sausage, $6/lb pork chops/chicken breasts/ground beef.

The Fred Meyer (Kroger chain) has also started carrying reasonably priced organic meat, and I'm guessing Safeway is too, since they've got their organic brand (but grocery store organic may not be much better than regular factory farmed).

I've found that it's about as cheap for me to buy fresh from my butcher as it was to buy in bulk from a farm (half a cow, etc.) but finding a local farm and stocking a chest freezer is also an economical option for happy meat.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 1:47 PM on March 10, 2014

I've researched some of the same things that you have, as I recently became mostly vegetarian but still like to do muscle-building exercise. I don't lift as much as you do, nor do I eat as much protein as you, but here's what I boil your question down to, since you've eliminated vegetarian protein- how can I get a lot of animal protein from a non-factory farm?

I think your only choice here is to buy a cow or animal share from a reputable farm with a chest freezer. Most of what I've read is that you can get a quarter share for about 6 dollars a pound, which isn't CHEAP, but is probably the best you can do.

The only other thing I could suggest is to buy several kinds of protein powder with varying amino acid profiles, so perhaps pea + hemp + wheat gluten. I haven't researched this as much, but it's apparently the reason why animal protein seems more effective at muscle building.
posted by thewumpusisdead at 1:48 PM on March 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm not a body builder or anything (though I'd like to be! And have done some light weight training) but I am a pescetarian, primarily for the reasons you state - factory farming conditions.

So in terms of ethics: eggs are actually terrible. Even supposedly free range chickens have very limited pecking room and are kept in extremely terrible conditions. Google away if you dare.

In my opinion, the dolphin-free tuna and sardines are a fairly ethical choice for fish, and they're cheap, and they're a quick, easy, fairly affordable form of protein you could eat every day.

I feel much better about my sardine eating than I do about my egg eating.

You probably know about this guide to ethical fish consumption.

For dairy, maybe consider increasing sheep and goat dairy? It is more expensive but there is not the factory farming infrastructure for these dairy animals that there are for cows.
posted by latkes at 1:48 PM on March 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

I dunno about whey and I have my fingers crossed for you on that front, but I can say that factory style chicken farms for eggs are really terrible and fish farms aren't great either, though perhaps not quite as bad as their land counterparts.

You don't have any hippie friends with backyard chickens, do you?
posted by Diablevert at 1:48 PM on March 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Your per-pound price of beef drops quite a bit if you buy it in, half-a-side. Moreover, you can choose to buy all grass fed beef and have it cut however you want. You will need someplace to store it, though so a chest freezer is a necessity.

Compared to buying grass-fed beef in the store, it's a bargain.
posted by jquinby at 1:49 PM on March 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

To address the egg issue; Organic eggs or free-range eggs are really quite inexpensive. Places like Whole Foods, Sprouts, Earth Fare, Trader Joe's, Giant Eagle, Kroger's, etc.......all have their own store brand of organic eggs, which run at about $3.00 for a dozen.

The conditions of factory farmed eggs are not better at all. It is so horrifying to me. Kudos to you for making this change!
posted by DeltaForce at 1:49 PM on March 10, 2014

Not a lifter but someone that is trying, like you, to eat more consciously.

I find buying in bulk really drops the price down, if you have a chest freezer and do some googling it is reasonably easy to get half a sheep or cow at a total cost per pound in your range.

Put the word out you are looking for actual free range eggs (not ones just marketed as free range) to friends and family, if you live in a reasonable sized town chances are there are people that keep some backyard chickens, most people I know with chickens sell off the excess for a few bucks a carton. Check the boards or ask at local vegetarian/health food shops for connections too. Can't get much happier chickens than ones allowed to peck around someones yard and eat bugs, and they taste so damn good.
posted by wwax at 1:55 PM on March 10, 2014

As a vegan, I can't really weigh in on the meat thing. But! I can tell you that as far as eggs go, the free-range ones by Vital Farms are truly free range. You can usually find them at Whole Foods.

As far as minimizing animal suffering goes, avoiding milk is one of the best (and possibly easiest) ways to do this.

Agreeing with those who said that from a cost perspective, getting a big freezer and buying a side of meat (cow, pig, whatever) from a reputable source will help dramatically.

And can I just say that I think it's awesome that you're doing this? Cause it is.
posted by dotgirl at 2:00 PM on March 10, 2014 [6 favorites]

MeatSuite is a site that helps people find farms who sell local bulk meat. It probably has a NY bias due to being new.

Storage: long shot, but is there a community meat locker near you?
posted by zamboni at 2:02 PM on March 10, 2014

I am a vegetarian and I once weighed 225 pounds at 6"1' and could bench press four plates. I still can bench press three plates cold and I haven't trained the bench press for years. Right now I lift 6 days per week but a lot of it is weird stuff like atlas stones or jump squats.

"Scooby" is a vegetarian and gets all his animal protein from whey and egg whites. There are a lot of guys like this. A guy in my gym squats 565 at 165 and recently won IPL worlds in his class, which i think is single ply. He seems to live off of fruit juice. There are a lot of straight up vegan powerlifters. They have some interesting info and seem to be mostly be based in Australia, of all places.

I used to use whey isolate and egg whites, but I am not sure where whey isolate really comes from. I used "NOW" brand, which claimed to be organic, but I don't know what it meant for the cows. My eggs were "free range." However, to be honest I haven't eaten eggs since January. Unfortunately producing milk and managing chickens at scale are two of the yuckiest forms of factory farming, even if organic. Killing your own cow is probably more "humane" than what those animals go through on the daily.

Much of it depends on your goals. Do you want to "get big?" Compete in what? Bodybuilding? Weight class powerlifting?

I'm a bit skeptical that taking 150+ grams of protein is actually useful without taking steroids. I "got big" before ever really thinking about protein intake. I would guess I probably got 85 grams of protein. I mostly ate pasta. *shrug* Inadvertently, my approach to protein was sort of the opposite of what many espouse... I just got a little over the minimum, instead of blasting myself with the maximum. To be honest, I really don't like talking about diet with other lifters because they assume what I say is impossible. The guys at my gym who seem to be most obsessed about their macros are the worst lifters.
posted by BabeTheBlueOX at 2:12 PM on March 10, 2014 [6 favorites]

I did ethical meat/eggs/dairy plus heavy lifting and recreationally competitive judo for about two years. (It's a different story since I expatriated.) I think you are making the maximally awesome choice. Here's how I managed it.

1. Bulk happy beef and pork. Find a meatshare or grass-fed cow/pig farm around you, buy a half a dead animal, put it in your freezer. This allowed me the most latitude, since I got the highest quality cuts for the lowest price in the most reliable fashion. If you buy a half or quarter cow you should be shelling out approximately $7/pound for a variety of cuts. A whole cow might come down to $6. Be mindful of the difference between hanging weight and boxed weight.

I really can't stress how awesome meatshares are. There's some initial work to find a supplier, gather some friends to pool money, and make the pickup but let me tell you it is worth it. Even if you can't afford expensive meat all the time, it can work if you save up. For instance, my friends were in a less favorable economic position than I was and simply stretched their quarter-cow share longer than I did.

2. Farm eggs every ding-dong day. I don't trust anything that's in the supermarket, even the organic eggs in the hippy supermarket, unless I personally know the farm. Labeling is not reliable for eggs. The better option is to buy two to four dozen eggs at the farmer's market from someone wearing a hand-knitted sweater. Eat these eggs every day for breakfast. Eat them when you don't have time to defrost the bulk meat. For me, this was the economical staple protein.

3. I didn't do as good a job with fish, because farm fish aren't good with regards to healthy oils and wild fish supplies are dwindling and therefore less ethically favorable. Either option is good protein, though.

4. When you don't have the money for meat or eggs, you can up your dairy intake. Grass-fed is the label I look for. Your best bet is to find a farm directly or through a farmer's market that supplies grass-fed milk and yogurt. Barring that, the local organic supermarket might have something.

5. Bluebonnet whey is the happy, grass-fed supplement I used. I consider it a splurge purchase.

I had a favorable financial situation at the time and so didn't scale back my protein intake much while using the above approach. However, I often lacked the logistical skills necessary to eat optimally, and I found that rice+vegetables+farm eggs was a fantastic diet for squatting and deadlifting. The ethics and price are pretty much ideal as well.
posted by daveliepmann at 2:13 PM on March 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

Hi! I am crazy meat-eating powerlifter! I only eat meat from pastured animals. Yes, it is expensive. I don't eat quite as much protein as you, but I keep it to at least 120 grams or so.

The folks above who are recommending a cowshare are right on. This is, bar none, the easiest way to get lots of high-quality animal protein for a low(er) cost. It does, however, require a mega-huge freezer.

I lack a mega-huge freezer, so instead I bought into a meat CSA in my area. I subscribe to meat! Every month, I go fill my cooler up with frozen beef and pork from animals raised humanely and healthily. This meat lasts me fairly well. I supplement with pasture-raised chickens from another farm. (As an aside, "vegetarian fed" chickens are actually BS-fed. Chickens are omnivorous--vegetarian fed means "some guy fattened me up on corn and soy.")

Money-saving tip: learn to like the things that most people don't want. Beef heart is wonderful, pretty much pure protein, and CHEAP. Sardines are full of omega-3s, very low in mercury, and are not in danger of overfishing.

Do not eat supermarket eggs--"free range" means just about nothing. You can get pastured eggs at Whole Foods but they are insanely expensive--instead, hook up with an urban farmer in your area (backyard chickens are a Thing these days) and buy eggs from happy chickens that eat bugs and other good stuff. Two women in my downtown Atlanta office raise chickens--I buy eggs from them for $3/dozen and they are incredible. You will find happy eggs if you look.

I eat a ton of eggs, consequently.

I don't really do much dairy so I can't speak to that, but you can certainly get dairy from pastured animals as well. Whey protein is not a thing I eat, though I have seen grassfed whey protein.

So here are my takeaways:
1. You will at some times have to fudge with Ethics, Cost, or Protein Intake. Decide which of those you're most comfortable with and plan for it.
2. Seek out farms, farmers' markets, CSAs, and the like. Get to know the people who grow your food. These are the people who should provide the bulk of your animal protein intake, not Whole Foods, etc. This *will* make grocery shopping more of a chore.
3. It is possible.
posted by gone2croatan at 2:16 PM on March 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

I don't know where you are located but Blue Goose Farms are super humane.

Ask around because having a local chicken egg hookup is the best. You never know who lives just out of the city and has a small coop of ladies in their back yard or farm.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 2:35 PM on March 10, 2014

I am in Philadelphia, so if anyone knows of good hookups around here that are accessible by bike or public transit that would be great. I went to a local farmer's market but the prices were crazy-pants.

OK, so sounds like commercial eggs and dairy are off the table too. Does this include whey protein, or can I consider its production process recycling?
posted by schroedinger at 2:45 PM on March 10, 2014

Pastured eggs are humane. They are $6 to $8 per dozen from Whole Foods. Free range eggs are generally not particularly humane. Pastured eggs are from chickens that live outside, often with mobile shelter. Wikipedia.
posted by jsturgill at 2:47 PM on March 10, 2014

Another thing to keep in mind is that some cuts of meat are MUCH cheaper than others. For instance, happy animal boneless skinless chicken breasts go for about $10 a pound at my local hippie grocery store, while legs and thighs are $4-5 a pound. Non factory farmed steaks are stupidly expensive, but tough cuts for braising (brisket, chuck, etc.) can be had for $7-9 a pound. These cuts tend to be fattier, so if that's something you're trying to minimize I recommend stews and braises, let them chill in the fridge overnight, and then remove the layer of fat from the surface. Pork is generally less expensive than beef, and does not need to be cooked to shoe-leather consistency as your mother may have done. Ground meat and sausages from a reputable source can also be a tasty, versatile and economical option.

Seafood is difficult because prices vary so much by location and finding trustworthy sustainable options in your area will require research. Generally small fish such as sardines are cheap and sustainable. Another really good option is shellfish - clams and mussels are frequently very cheap near the coast, but they must be fresh.
posted by psycheslamp at 2:50 PM on March 10, 2014

Wild caught fish is fine, as long as the stocks are sustainably managed. Monterey Bay aquarium is the go to to check on that, they publish a list every year and it's in their website. There are also seafood CASs all over the east coast, Google will help you find one.
posted by fshgrl at 2:59 PM on March 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

According to one study I read, eating small fish like sardines and anchovies has a much smaller ecological footprint than eating large fish like salmon, and because they are caught wild they are arguably much more humanely treated than e.g., poultry or cows.
posted by en forme de poire at 3:06 PM on March 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

I personally wouldn't feel too guilty about the whey because it is a byproduct of other dairy production. Yes, it helps with the bad guys' bottom line, but it could be worse.

As mentioned above, if you can track down a backyard egg-producer you should be able to get happy eggs for a decent price. (I pay $3/ dozen.)

I consider wild game to be a more ethical choice than most. If you don't hunt or fish yourself, you might know people who do and would be willing to share. Also, calling butchers who deal with wild game can get you venison that people never picked up at a good price. (Many hunters don't do their own butchering and drop off their deer with a butcher.)
posted by metasarah at 3:30 PM on March 10, 2014

Here in Philly there is, among other things, Philly Cow Share.
posted by Tomorrowful at 3:35 PM on March 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Sun warrior warrior mix protein powder is tasty. See if you can get samples of various vegan powders.

I'm allergic to eggs and dairy, and possibly soy, and it's a lifesaver in terms of protein.

I kinda don't know if you are looking for vegan suggestions, but a lot of people find whey powders hard to digest.
posted by the young rope-rider at 3:47 PM on March 10, 2014

Oh, and more specifically, I like the vanilla warrior mix powder, and mefite grobstein is more a fan of the chocolate. It's available for about $1 per 18 grams of protein.
posted by the young rope-rider at 3:50 PM on March 10, 2014

The chickens and cows used to produce conventional eggs and whey are treated just as badly as factory farm animals, I'm sure. With fish, I assume it's more complicated, but as stated above I think wild caught fish is better in terms of treatment ( but again you have to consider sustainability, catching methods,etc, the Monterey guide referred to above is a good source). It's also true that sardines and anchovies are much more sustainable AND much more healthy (low in toxic metals, very high in omega 3s).
posted by Blitz at 3:53 PM on March 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Just FYI, to meet the OP's protein requirements using eggs alone he'd need to be eating about two dozen eggs a day. At that point, $4 to $8 for the whole foods ones adds up pretty quick.
posted by Diablevert at 3:56 PM on March 10, 2014

psst: schroedinger is female
posted by en forme de poire at 4:00 PM on March 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

at least, I seem to remember - correct me if I'm wrong
posted by en forme de poire at 4:02 PM on March 10, 2014

The title of this question is perhaps a bit misleading, because I looked at it thinking 'oh great, we get to talk about vegetable protein!' and then you say 'don't go there' in the beginning of this question.

Would it be at all acceptable to you to 'round out' the proteins on your plate by eating protein-rich vegetable foods alongside animal proteins? I'm thinking pseudograins like amaranth and quinoa, dark leafy greens, nuts and seeds. I'm also a recent convert to hemp protein as a post-workout meal (beverage?). I find it much easier to digest than soya protein powders. And if your aim really is to reduce your overall consumption of animal foods, you could maybe aim to eat one vegetarian/vegan meal a week - perhaps in the evening before a rest day?
posted by nerdfish at 5:24 AM on March 11, 2014

Nerdfish, my aim is to reduce my overall consumption of factory-farm produced animal foods, not all animal foods. If I could afford to eat happy animals and happy animal products every meal I would.

Thank you all for the very good suggestions. I will have to start saving for a chest freezer, I guess. I may or may not be leaving the Philly area in the summer, but wherever I go I'll look into cow shares and that sort of thing.
posted by schroedinger at 6:48 AM on March 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Sources to find local farms - veg/meat/dairy/poultry:

Local Harvest
Eat Well Guide
Eat Wild
Local Dirt
posted by CathyG at 4:19 PM on March 11, 2014

Another place to check for local sourcing is with your state's department of agriculture. Tennessee, for example, has, which lets you search for all manner of locally grown food and connect directly with the producers.
posted by jquinby at 5:16 PM on March 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Whatever you do, don't cut out beef and replace it with factory farmed eggs. You'll be significantly increasing the suffering you cause, not decreasing it.

Here is a tentative analysis that may be useful to you which compares the impacts of different kinds of animal product.

As you can see, if you are going to eat animal protein, dairy looks like the least bad option in terms of the impact of factory farming processes on animals. Farmed fish is worst.
posted by dontjumplarry at 4:18 AM on March 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

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